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A Mother's 'Minefields' When A Child Deploys.

Writer Sue Diaz was surprised when her son Roman told her that he was joining the Army. She writes about the emotional roller coaster her family experienced when her son left for war — and how her relationship with Roman changed — in Minefields of the Heart.

21:14

Other segments from the episode on August 17, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 17, 2010: Interview with Sue Diaz; Obituary for Abbey Lincoln.

Transcript

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A Mother's 'Minefields' When A Child Deploys

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sue Diaz, never expected her son Roman to become a soldier,
never expected him to go to war, but instead of college, in 2002 he
chose the paycheck, health benefits and money that came with joining the
Army. He thought the structure and discipline would be good for him,
too.

He did two deployments in Iraq, 27 months. One of those deployments was
at the height of the insurgency, in the area known as the triangle of
death, 20 miles south of Baghdad. His platoon suffered a particularly
high death toll. He was injured by an IED.

Sue Diaz has written a memoir called "Minefields of the Heart" about
what it was like at home when her son was at war. She's written essays
for the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. She's also conducted
writing workshops for veterans at the San Diego vet center and created a
website for the writings of veterans around the country.

Sue Diaz, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write that your son never played
with guns. Was that because you didn't want him to?

Ms. SUE DIAZ (Author, "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a
Son at War"): Right, yeah.

GROSS: So you were raising him to not be a gun kind of guy. So it must
have really shocked you when he joined the military.

Ms. DIAZ: Yeah, you know, not the military so much but the infantry was
the real shocker.

GROSS: Why was that the real shocker?

Ms. DIAZ: Well, I mean, the infantry is the boots on the ground, the
guys carrying the guns.

GROSS: And why did he join the infantry?

Ms. DIAZ: He actually qualified for every job that the Army offered. So
he had his pick of anything. And he chose the infantry. And he said, you
know, it offered the largest signing bonus, and my thought was, well,
there's a reason for that.

GROSS: You actually offered him money to stay and not join the infantry.

Ms. DIAZ: I did, yeah. Well, and it wasn't not to join the military but
it was the infantry, and the bonus was at that time $10,000. And I had a
CD from an aunt of mine who - it was an inheritance thing and it was
sitting in the credit union. And I said, I will give you this bonus for
not joining the infantry.

It wasn't a thing to bribe him not to join the military. It was the
infantry thing that I was really bent out of shape about, I think.

GROSS: Now, when he joined the infantry, it was in 2002, you opposed the
war in Iraq. Your husband supported it. Did your son have a political
opinion about the war in Iraq, and did that come into play at all in his
decision to join?

Ms. DIAZ: I would say no. I mean, I don't really want to speak for him
about that. I would say, you know, politics was sort of on the
periphery, really, of his thinking. It was more of a life choice, not a
political statement.

GROSS: So give us an overview of when and where he served in Iraq.

Ms. DIAZ: He served with the First Army Division. That was his first
tour of duty. And that was also in and near Baghdad in what was called
the triangle of death.

But his first tour of duty, the group that he served with, they seemed
to live a charmed life, actually. It wasn't until the very end of their
year-long deployment that they lost someone in their company.

He actually said to us on occasion that, you know, bridges blow up after
we cross them, and mortars land in a barracks after we've left. And it
seemed to be - I mean, they had a reputation for being golden, at that
time, actually. It wasn't nearly as difficult as his second deployment.

So he came back from that and was transferred to the 101st Airborne. I
think he chose the 101st Airborne. They're based in Fort Campbell,
Kentucky. You know, he went there, and shortly after he arrived there,
it was announced that the 101st Airborne would be going to Iraq.

So, you know, he had maybe six months or eight months in between
deployments and then was headed back to Iraq once again with First
Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment Bravo Company First Platoon.

GROSS: Well, while he was in the military, you worried about getting the
phone call or the knock on the door. And you got one of those phone
calls about an IED explosion. Tell us about the call.

Ms. DIAZ: It was two days before Christmas that the phone rang, and it
was early in the morning. And a voice, you know, asked: Is this Susan
Diaz? And I said yes. And I thought it was a telemarketer. It had that
kind of formality to it.

And then the voice said, you know, this is Captain Candrian of the 101st
Airborne, and there's been an incident. Your son has been involved in an
IED explosion. And he said, do you know what an IED is? And I was like,
yeah. I mean, those three letters were as familiar to me as PTA used to
be.

And he went on to say that he wasn't, you know, injured seriously, that
he had suffered some wounds and was being patched up at the aid station
in Mahmudiyah and that we probably wouldn't hear from him for a while
because there was a news blackout.

And I asked him about that. You know, what do you mean a news blackout?
And then he explained, he said whenever there's an incident and soldiers
are killed, that they don't allow the soldiers in that unit to contact
their families until the next of kin of those who have been lost have
been contacted.

And so then that indicated to me sort of the seriousness of this
explosion. And there were two soldiers that were lost in that.

And, you know, I remember at the time, you know, writing down the name
of the place where that happened, Mahmudiyah, and asking the captain to
spell it. I mean, I remember being very kind of focused and almost
meticulous about taking notes about this, as if that would somehow make
right what I was hearing.

GROSS: What the captain told you was that your son had suffered a
perforated eardrum and that his face was peppered. And I'm sure your
instincts was, as a mother, was like, send him home so he can rest and
heal and so we can take care of him.

Ms. DIAZ: Yeah. Right.

GROSS: But you were told, well, you know, the injuries aren't serious.
So he's going to just, like, heal briefly and go right back to combat.
How did that make you feel?

Ms. DIAZ: Well, you know, sad, disappointed. I mean, I – even in hearing
that terrible news, there was this element of hope that maybe, you know,
he would come home to us and heal and be okay. But that, you know, that
wasn't the case.

And I later learned that the explosion was very serious. I mean, they
said that it was four guys on foot patrol and the IED exploded beneath
their feet. But it was powerful enough to be heard 10 miles away.

And in another book written about my son's platoon, "Black Hearts" by
Jim Frederick, he talks about that incident. And he says that – he
writes all four of those men should have been dead. And it was quite
something to read that.

GROSS: The IED explosion happened almost under your son's feet. How did
he survive?

Ms. DIAZ: That's a very good question. And in Jim Frederick's book, he
asks that same question. And the answer is that whoever planted that
large IED somehow didn't have it pointed in the right direction.

I mean, it was supposed to be – some part of it was supposed to be
pointing straight up, and it was angled. So they did a poor job of
planting it. And because it was angled the way it was, I mean, the power
of the explosion was still there, but the force of it went in a
different direction. So that was probably the thing that saved him.

GROSS: Well, this is one of the amazing parts of your story is that, you
know, your son tells you really very little about what his life in
combat is like.

And then years later, after he's returned, this year, in fact, in 2010,
Jim Frederick publishes this book, "Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent
into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death." And you read that, and your
son is one of the men being written about.

And some terrible things happen. We'll talk a little bit more about
that, but it was in this book that you learned that your son - it was
amazing that he survived this IED explosion. And I'm wondering what it
was like to read this book and find out through a book what had actually
happened to your son, as opposed to hearing it from him firsthand.

Ms. DIAZ: Well, I mean, Roman is a Roman, and he never really has been
much of a talker. And so this wasn't like a new kind of - a new shutting
down. I mean, he has always been a very private person.

But when the book came out, I knew the day that it was coming out, and I
went to the bookstore and purchased it. And I read it from start to
finish in a day really and felt afterwards shaken to my core. It's a
story of an extremely difficult deployment on many, many levels.

During the worst time of the war when Roman's unit was there, when his
battalion was there, the region around Mahmudiyah was patrolled by 1,000
soldiers who encountered on the average about 100 attacks per week. His
battalion in one year encountered 900 - 900 IEDs.

And later, after the surge and when things had quieted down, in that
same area around Mahmudiyah and Yusufiyah, 30,000 troops were brought in
to cover that same area. So it gives you some idea of what these men
were up against.

GROSS: Do you feel lucky that you didn't know about that as it was
happening?

Ms. DIAZ: Yes, I do. I do. I mean, I think on some level, anyone who has
someone in a combat zone, I think in some deep corner of your heart, you
know the kind of danger that you're in - that they're in.

You know, you don't really go there, but you know that that's there, I
think. And I know, like, when Roman was there, there were deaths
reported in the newspapers, and I didn't know exactly how bad it was.

I mean, I remember we did get a letter from him, and he talked about –
he said, oh, I haven't written to you for a while but, you know, I think
I ought to let you know what's going on here. And this was shortly after
they arrived with 101st Airborne into this area, Mahmudiyah and
Yusufiyah.

And he said, we're, you know, we're out here kind of away from things.
We have our food dropped off by helicopter. You know, our supplies are
dropped in by helicopter. We're kind of out here on our own.

And I remember reading that at that time and thinking, oh, you know,
they're in some, like, remote area where they're keeping an eye on a
distant border, and that's why a helicopter is dropping those things,
you know, off.

And so I fooled myself into thinking that, you know, that indicated that
they were in a safe place. But as it turns out, the reason that the
helicopter was dropping the things off is that the roads surrounding
that area were just deemed too dangerous for supply trucks to travel.
And these were the roads that every single day, they got in the Humvees
to go in patrol, they walked. So that fact says a lot, I think.

GROSS: I remember interviewing an author who said that she was always so
worried about her children that, for example, whenever they would take a
long plane ride and she was worried about the plane crashing or
something, that she'd, like, she'd clean the house. She'd wash the
kitchen floor. She would do anything that was not pleasurable because
she was afraid if she had pleasure that that would superstitiously put
her children in danger. So she'd wash the floor. Did you have any
superstitions that you developed, things that you needed to do to keep
your son safe?

Ms. DIAZ: I would sometimes, I mean, compartmentalize. I mean, I would
just take that fear and that terror and I would almost picture myself
putting it someplace else, putting it in a box, so to speak.

And I would know it was there. I would go there from time to time, but I
could not live there. And you can't. I mean, life goes on even against a
backdrop of, you know, of these incredible dangers that our loved ones
face over there. But, you know, life goes on here, and it has to.

And I think on some level that they want to know that, too, that they
find some comfort in knowing that, okay, we're here, we're protecting
you, but they want to know that life as they knew it is still there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Diaz, and her new book
is called "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War,"
and it's about her experiences while her son Roman did his two tours of
duty in the Iraq war. We'll talk some more after we take a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sue Diaz, and she's
written a memoir called "Minefields of the Heart: A Mother's Stories of
a Son at War." And it's about her experiences at home while her son did
two tours of duty in Iraq.

We talked earlier about the IED that exploded and was sort of 10 miles
away and that nearly killed him but amazingly, he survived with, you
know, with mild injuries. But it turns out the injuries weren't really
as mild as originally diagnosed because he had TBI. I assume it was from
that blast?

Ms. DIAZ: He was involved in several explosions peripherally. But I
think it was from that one, yeah.

GROSS: And I should say, TBI is traumatic brain injury, when the brain
is kind of shaken up so much by something like a blast that there's
damage that's caused. That went undiagnosed for a long time and is still
going undiagnosed in a lot of places. How was your son diagnosed?

Ms. DIAZ: Well, he's been seen by, you know, doctors and therapists at
the VA, you know, since his return. And, you know, there are different
degrees of traumatic brain injury, and his I would say is milder than
some.

It affects his ability to – his sense of direction and his memory, his
short-term memory especially. He is able to, you know, function and
stuff, but it makes like that much harder.

And he's in college right now. He's going to the Art Institute of
California up in Orange County. He's a full-time student. And things
that he used to be able to do, you know, turn around in half an hour
projects, programming projects or Web projects now takes him, you know,
much, much longer. So there – you know, it's an ongoing struggle,
really.

GROSS: He's also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Do
you see the symptoms of that?

Ms. DIAZ: Occasionally, yeah, from time to time, yeah, as all people who
have that, I think, are – can be quicker to anger sometimes and, you
know, a little antsy in crowds. Or, I've noticed this actually with the
veterans in the writing groups that I lead now. They'll tell me about
it, or they'll demonstrate it, where if they're sitting in a room, they
want to be, their back to the wall and their eyes to the door. And
that's something that they'll do all their lives probably.

GROSS: So how close to you geographically does your son live now?

Ms. DIAZ: It's about a two-hour drive. He lives up in Lawndale, which is
in the L.A. area.

GROSS: That's not bad.

Ms. DIAZ: So it's about two hours on the I-5. He is married now, too, so
we see him and his wife quite often. They were down maybe about a week
and a half ago, helping with some hedge trimming in the backyard.

GROSS: Your father served in World War II, right?

Ms. DIAZ: Yes.

GROSS: Did he talk about the war?

Ms. DIAZ: No, he didn't. There was a time where I once discovered, when
I was about 10 years old, in a – he had an office in the basement of our
house in Wisconsin. And in a drawer in that office, I was looking for
something else and opened that bottom drawer and found a shoebox full of
black and white photos that he had brought home with him from the war.

And I can still see the faces and those images in those photos. I mean,
he landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He fought through to
Paris, and then toward the end of the war, he was involved in liberating
some of the concentration camps, or one of them. I think it was Bergen-
Belsen. I'm not sure about that, but it was a concentration camp.

And there were photos of, you know, that were taken in the war by – if
it was by him or other soldiers, but he had those photos. And I remember
seeing those photos and, you know, realizing in some 10-year-old way
that, what - the hell of war and what that was for him.

GROSS: I've asked you to describe some of the most horrific things that
happened to your son and your reaction to it, but tell us what it was
like when he came home from his final tour and you got to see him still
intact.

Ms. DIAZ: It was wonderful. And I remember, you know, we flew to Fort
Campbell, Kentucky from California to be there when the plane landed
when his unit finally came home.

And I remember sitting in the big, sort of cavernous hangar, really,
which is where the families gather, and the door opening and the
sunlight behind the men and them marching in and just the place erupting
in pure joy to see them.

And, you know, they march in front of you, and you're in the bleachers,
and you can't touch them, you can't throw your arms around them yet.
They're standing there, and, you know, I remember Roman looking up and
seeing us and, you know, we're waving and his eyebrows lifting, and it
was – you know, it's a moment that a parent or anyone in that situation
never forgets.

And I remember when finally the songs were sung and the speeches were
given, and then they said, you know, okay, you can break ranks and be
reunited with your families.

And, you know, finding him on the floor, I mean, it's just a swarm of
people, everyone looking for their soldier and finally throwing my arms
around him and, you know, simply saying, Roman, and hearing him saying
mom, and, you know, thinking – that was all that we said, but that was
everything in that moment.

GROSS: Sue Diaz, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. DIAZ: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Sue Diaz is the author of the author of the memoir "Minefields of
the Heart: A Mother's Stories of a Son at War." You can read an excerpt
on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
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Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Singer Abbey Lincoln

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Listening to Abbey Lincoln's records
can move you to tears, because of her beautiful voice and her honesty
when she sings of joy or pain. It made me really sad to hear she died
Saturday. She was 80.

We're going to play excerpts of two interviews with Abbey Lincoln from
our archive.

Lincoln started her career in the early 1950s as a nightclub singer,
cultivating a seductive image, wearing evening gowns and singing
romantic ballads. Her public image and self-image started to change in
the late '50s when she met drummer and bebop pioneer Max Roach, who
introduced her to modern jazz and a performing style influenced by the
civil rights movement. They recorded a series of albums together and
were married from 1962 to 1970.

Later in her career, she became known for the song she wrote as well as
the ones she interpreted. Abbey Lincoln also had an acting career. She
performed in the rock 'n' roll movie "The Girl Can't Help It," starred
in the 1964 film "Nothing But A Man," co-starred opposite Sidney Poitier
in "For the Love of Ivy," and was in Spike Lee's movie "Mo' Better
Blues."

Here's one of Abbey Lincoln's early recordings, from 1956.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Walked In")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Love walked right in and drove the shadows
away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day. One magic
moment, and my heart seemed to know that love said hello, though not a
word was spoken. One look...

GROSS: The first of the two Abbey Lincoln interviews we'll hear is from
1986. She told me how she got interested in music.

Ms. LINCOLN: I'm one of 12 children, and there's an old piano in the
house that my father furnished for us, and I was the only one,
seemingly, who was interested in the piano. I found solace there and a
companionship, just sitting and picking out a melody on the piano,
because it didn’t get on my mother's nerves, thank goodness.

GROSS: So the music you heard on the farm was mostly church music.

Ms. LINCOLN: I didn’t hear much music on the farm. The music that I
made, really, there was a Victrola and songs that seemed way far away
somehow.

GROSS: Like from another culture?

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes.

GROSS: What songs were those?

Ms. LINCOLN: One was called - well, there's a man singing a song about,
oh, a pal - oh pal, oh gal, you left me all alone, a sad song. And
somebody told me that it was about a dog. But I thought it really could
have been about a dog but it was somebody that he loved a lot, things
like that, hymns that we learned in church. But that was not my
inspiration for singing.

When I was 14, my sister brought a recording home of Billie Holiday and
Coleman Hawkins, the same day. I heard them both. And he was singing
"Body and Soul." I don’t remember what Billie was singing.

GROSS: When you started singing in nightclubs, well, judging from the
cover, anyways, of that same record, you were wearing like evening
gowns...

Ms. LINCOLN: That's late into my career.

GROSS: Oh, that's later on? Yeah.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. I started as Anna Marie. That's the name my people
named me. Anna Marie Woodridge is the name I was born to. And I met a
man named Bob Russell who named me Abbey Lincoln and introduced me to
the svelte chic world of the supper club.

GROSS: Was it hard to fit into it, having come from a farm in Michigan?

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...I never really felt it. You know, they talked about my
being sexy and they talked - they said all these things, because I had a
press agent, of course, you know? And they decided that was the image
that they were going to put forth, of this wonderful looking woman who
didn’t have much talent though. I mean she couldn’t sing much. This is
what I got. They were interested in making money and I was just biding
my time until I found me a man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: But in the process of all this, I'm saying I learned to not
trust myself because I wasn’t studying to be truly an artist. By the
time I met Roach, I was already - had made the cover of Ebony magazine
and I had made a movie with Jane Mansfield called "The Girl Can't Help
It," and I had a career that I hadn't planned. But still, I was there.
And so I left that and went with Roach - with Max. He told me that I
didn’t have to do things like that.

GROSS: What did you think when he told you that?

Ms. LINCOLN: I was relieved.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. LINCOLN: And I believed him because I knew he was a great artist. I
had a chance to watch him perform in California. I didn’t know anything
about Max Roach or Charlie Parker or none of these people, because I
wasn’t approaching the music from that standpoint. I knew the people who
were popular, who I'd hear on the radio, and I happened to like Billie
Holiday and Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. There's a
lot of people who I heard - and Lena Horne.

GROSS: So you met many other jazz musicians at that time...

Ms. LINCOLN: I met the jazz musicians when I met Max Roach. That's
when...

GROSS: And you started recording with jazz musicians.

Ms. LINCOLN: I started recording. Yes, it always - well, I started to
work with virtuoso musicians for the first time in my life. This is
really what happened to me. I didn’t know what a virtuoso artist was
until I met this crowd of musicians and singers. Even though I was
listening to Billie Holiday, I didn’t know who she was, really. I was
singing the best I could, but there's a kind of a culture that this
music is, and I wasn’t involved in that then.

GROSS: How did it change your singing? Did you find like your phrasing
changed or that...

Ms. LINCOLN: No.

GROSS: ...that you would interpret a song any differently with the
different kind of accompaniment?

Ms. LINCOLN: No. I'm still myself. I'm myself but I'm more myself now.
There were pointers that, like for instance, Max would say to me, sing
on the beat, because I had the tendency to sing a long line. And I knew
where the beat was but I figured it was somebody else's business and not
my own. And I would say to him, well, the band didn’t swing. He'd say to
me, you’re supposed to swing. You’re supposed to be the rhythm section.
Things like that.

GROSS: I'd like to play a 1957 recording that you made which features
Max Roach on drums, and Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Kelly, Paul
Chambers all perform on it. How did this session come to be?

Ms. LINCOLN: I had come to New York to do a screen test for "The Billie
Holiday Story" - this is years ago. And they told me that after I'd come
and taken an apartment and everything, they told me that they were going
to use Lana Turner or somebody like that, or Ava Gardner. Really. Truly.
This is the truth, Terry. But anyway, I was in New York and I was seeing
Max Roach and he said to me, how would you like to make a jazz album?
And I said I'm not a jazz singer. And he said, well, you’re black,
aren't you? That's when I started to see myself through the music on
another level. I never thought of music on this level before.

I used to sing songs that Billie Holiday and Sarah and the other singers
would sing, and I didn’t know what I was saying, really. I was just
singing. I would sing "My Man," but I discovered I didn’t want that in
my life. If I met a man like that, I know what to do for him. You just
leave him alone, you know? I didn’t want to sing sad songs, and this
masochistic woman who tells all, it never appealed to me. So - and since
it was done so well, I mean Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday and, well,
Ethel Waters - many women have told this side of the story. Now there's
something else to say and I believe I'm the one...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...to say it.

GROSS: Let's listen to this 1957 recording with my guest, Abbey Lincoln.

(Soundbite of song, "That's Him")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) You can shuffle him with millions, sold to them
for billions, I'd pick him out in the darkest case and hallways, I would
know him always, beyond a doubt. Identification comes easily to me
because that's he. You know the way you feel when there is autumn in the
air, that’s him, that’s him. The way you feel when Antoine has just
finished with your hair, that’s him, that’s him. You know the way you
feel when you smell bread baking. The way you feel when suddenly a tooth
stops aching. Wonderful world, wonderful you, that’s him, that’s him. He
is as...

GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln recorded in 1957. The interview we heard was
recorded in 1986. Abbey Lincoln died Saturday at the age of 80.

We'll continue our tribute with a 1993 interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz singer and songwriter Abbey Lincoln. She
died Saturday at the age of 80. The next interview we'll hear with her
from our archive was recorded in 1993.

Let me play one of the songs that you wrote that you recorded on one of
your recent albums. And this is called "I've Got Thunder And It Rings."

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a great song.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: Tell me something about writing it, about what you wanted to say
about yourself in this song.

Ms. LINCOLN: Well, there's a complaint about the woman - about the
female, you know? Especially about black women. I don’t know, I guess
it's the same thing for all the women. But if you express yourself, they
say you talk too much and don’t know how to be feminine and you’re a
drag, you know? So I say, listen, this is all true. So run, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...I'm not changing anything. I'm everything that you say I
am, so don’t come around here because love is an emotion that'll move
you to do things, to say things and to be things, whether it pleases
anybody or not.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Abbey Lincoln singing her own song, "I've Got
Thunder And It Rings." And this is from her album "The World is Falling
Down."

(Soundbite of song, "I've Got Thunder And It Rings")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Some folks talk about my power. Some folks say
I'm wild and strong. Others say my style of living makes a man go wrong.
I'm a woman hard to handle. If you need to handle this, start(ph) to
run, not start coming. I've got thunder and it rings. 'Cause love is an
emotion; it'll move you to do things, do things, do things. Love is an
emotion; it’ll move you to do things. I've got thunder and it rings.

Some folks talk about the love they're feeling, talk about the love they
need...

GROSS: That’s Abbey Lincoln singing her own song.

When you started your career as a singer, you worked as a glamorous
nightclub singer, evening gowns, the whole bit. As a matter - one writer
described you as being packaged as the black Julie London. Do you think
that that's appropriate?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: No, they used to compare me to Lena Horne. At that time
everybody was trying to be beautiful as Lena Horne.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LINCOLN: And there was Eartha Kitt, who was supposed to be a kitten,
and you were supposed to have a glamorous image. And for the first time,
I was using my physical look to attract attention to me and to - it was
a claim to fame. And it wasn’t anything that I'd ever done before
because we were taught not to do that anyway, it's vanity.

GROSS: Did it affect your relationship with men to be the sexy kitten on
stage?

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Because they believe - men and women, we all believe
what we see on the screen and people thought I was this, you know...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LINCOLN: I played that role. Why would they think anything else? So,
I radically, I went from there to this warrior woman and that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: ...befuddled everybody, too, because they thought, oh, why
don’t you shut up? I think I've had that said to me more than anything
in the world over the years when I was younger. You talk too much. You
know, don’t rock the boat. Even though they're miserable, people are
miserable, they’ll tell you this. But you’re not supposed to say
anything about it.

So when I discovered that there was the world of the artist, it saved my
life because I could strive to be individual and as best as I could be.
I didn’t have to have money. I didn’t have to have anything except my
life. And I went for that and I'm glad I did.

GROSS: You said that when you discovered jazz and the world of the
artist that you turned into a woman warrior.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell me a little bit about what you were like as the woman
warrior then?

Ms. LINCOLN: Well, the first thing I did, I just started to wear my hair
natural. That was a crime in 1960 - 1957, 1958. A black woman wasn’t
supposed to show that she had hair like she had. It was a disgrace to
have this kind of hair that they called all these crazy names. So I just
glorified my existence and I said, this is me and this is my beautiful
self, you know? The beauticians thought I was going to ruin their
business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: They did. They said I was after their business and a lot of
people said things. And I started singing songs that were more social. I
started writing songs and I found songs that would express what was in
my heart. Because, you know, Billie Holiday was like this, she didn’t
sing inane things. She sang about the life that she lived. She may have
been masochistic and all these things but she sang "Strange Fruit," and
"God Bless the Child That's Got Its Own." It’s the same reason they
remember Bessie Smith because these were social singers. They weren't
just - it wasn’t self-aggrandizement, standing in front of people saying
how great I am, but they was singing songs about the people's lives.

GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Abbey Lincoln. She died
Saturday at the age of 80. We'll hear more of that interview after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering jazz singer and songwriter Abbey Lincoln. She
died Saturday at the age of 80. Let's get back to our 1993 interview
with her.

I want to play a recording that you made of a song very associated with
Billie Holiday.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's a very masochistic song, "Don't Explain," but it's just
such a - it's a beautiful song, nevertheless, you know.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes, forgiving.

GROSS: Yeah, and it’s such a melody. And I love the way you sing it.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: Tell me a little bit before we hear it about the influence Billie
Holiday had on you. I think you’re a very different singer than she is.
Although...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...I hear the influence that she's had on you. But, tell me a
little bit about that influence and also if you knew her, if you met
her?

Ms. LINCOLN: I met her when I was about 23 in Honolulu and she came to
the bar where I was working. It was probably to get away from where she
was working because the place was jammed with people. Anyway, she came
to see me a couple of times and I'd run to catch her show and I saw her
magic on the stage. This beautiful woman who would stand perfectly still
with her hands like, she was a like a doll and her eyes would slide from
one side of the room to the other. And the room was perfectly still.

And I fell further in love with her. This was my - because I was singing
a lot of songs that she sang already so, that I learned on the radio -
from the radio. But Billie Holiday was always honest. She didn’t bend a
note to make her voice sound good. She was - it was in conversation that
she sang and she was sincere and honest, and she never made a record for
money. And to me, she's the greatest singer of her era.

GROSS: So do you think what you learned from Billie Holiday wasn’t how
to phrase as much as it was that you should be yourself.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Let's hear your recording of "Don't Explain," back from 1957 from
your album "That's Him," your first jazz recording.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Explain")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Hush now, don't explain. Just say you'll remain.
I'm glad you’re back, don't explain. Hush now, don't explain. You’re my
joy and pain. Skip that lipstick. Don't explain.

GROSS: That's Abbey Lincoln singing "Don't Explain."

You and Max Roach got married...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...during the period that you were recording together.

Ms. LINCOLN: Yes.

GROSS: How did you like married life? And I'm wondering if your career
ended up taking a backseat at all during the marriage.

Ms. LINCOLN: No. He's a great artist and would never ask another artist
to do that. But, marriage is the pits. You know why?

GROSS: Why?

Ms. LINCOLN: Because I'm a polygamist woman. I don’t want to be
everything to a man and I don’t want him trying being everything to me.
He's got his mother. I want to know if he loves his mother first. I want
to know if he loves his first wife, if he got along with her or if he
gets along with her. I just don’t like this approach to marriage and I
will never do it again. I don’t want to be that to anybody. I don’t want
anybody coming into my bedroom as if it’s theirs. I have to have my own
space. And he, I expect him to have his own. If he doesn’t know how to
have his own space I don’t want him around me.

GROSS: So never again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINCOLN: No, not that style.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Right. On the liner notes of one of your early records, someone
quotes Thelonious Monk as having said to you the first time he saw you
sing, I like the way you stand.

Ms. LINCOLN: No, he never said anything like that to me. Thelonious Monk
wouldn’t say anything like that to anybody in the first place, he
doesn’t give a damn about the way you stand. Excuse me Lord. Thelonious
Monk said to me, after listening to the words that I had written to his
song "Blue Monk," he said to me, he came to where I was and whispered in
my ear, don’t be so perfect. And I said to Max Roach, you know
Thelonious said to me? He said, don’t be so perfect. What does he mean?
And Roach said, he means make a mistake. And I didn’t know what either
one of them were talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how do you interpret that now?

Ms. LINCOLN: It means that you must reach for something. You have to
reach for the sky. If you don’t make it, at least you reached for it. So
your voice cracked, but you reached for it. You don’t play safe. It's
not Safe Jones. You take a chance on making a mistake. That's what they
meant. And I do. I've learned to sing like that.

GROSS: Well, I just saw you sing in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago
and...

Ms. LINCOLN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It was a great performance.

Ms. LINCOLN: Thank you.

GROSS: And, I don’t know, it seems like when I see you on stage that you
really are feeling the material that you sing, you’re not falling back
on professionalism or...

Ms. LINCOLN: No.

GROSS: ...show business or anything. You seem to really be reaching
inside each time you perform.

Ms. LINCOLN: That's true. It's the way of the music. Thelonious Monk
would be drenched in perspiration and absolutely possessed. Nina Simone,
Billie Holiday, it is the - and Charlie Parker, even though I didn’t see
him, but I hear it in his music, it's the possession. It's the muse.
They talk about the muse. I'm possessed of a muse and I belong to her
and she belongs to me. And as long as I sing and I am real and I do
nothing to betray the trust, this is what I do. And it's a wonderful
experience to come to the stage and to know that everything is all
right.

GROSS: That interview with Abbey Lincoln was recorded in 1993. Her final
album, "Abbey Sings Abbey," devoted to her original songs, was recorded
in 2006. When it was released in 2007, she was recovering from open
heart surgery.

Here's the final track of that final album. The song is called "Being
Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Being Me")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) All along away there were things to do. Always
some other, someone I could be. All the things to know, all the ways to
go. To fly a spirit for the stage show.

It wasn’t always easy learning to be me. Sometimes my head and heart
would disagree. Times I walked away, other times I'd stay to see the
drama of my life play.

Being me again...

GROSS: Abbey Lincoln died Saturday at the age of 80.

I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
129231169

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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